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The transition to universal sustainability must be socially fair and inclusive

Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of International Resource Panel/UNEP, © EU 2019
Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of International Resource Panel/UNEP, © EU 2019

July 2, 2019 - “In the absence of urgent and concerted action, rapid growth and inefficient use of natural resources will continue to create unsustainable pressures”, Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of International Resource Panel hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, warns. At the same time, “we need to make our societies more equitable and do more in the fight against poverty”.

“We want changes but we don’t want to change”

On the occasion of a public hearing organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Janez Potočnik, former EU Commissioner for the Environment, reminded the audience that the challenge which the world faces does not seem “to be one of inadequate scientific evidence anymore; rather one of cooperation and implementation”.

The EESC is currently drafting an opinion that aims to formulate proposals on how to implement the SDGs by addressing social concerns in full synergy with environmental and economic ones.

Last May, the International Resource Panel (IRP) launched its new report that points out that “over the past five decades, our global population has doubled, the extraction of materials has tripled and gross domestic product has quadrupled”. Janez Potočnik adds that the current “market economy results in an economic, social and environmental imbalance”. For too long the social dimension of sustainability has been largely overlooked.

Ensure a fair sharing of the costs and benefits

According the IRP, two main dynamics are at play. While “newly industrialising countries are building new infrastructure”, high-income countries continue to “import resources and materials and outsource the production-related environmental impacts to middle- and low-income countries”.

As we are more interconnected than ever, our individual and collective responsibility has increased enormously. “For the first time in human history, we face the emergence of a single, tightly coupled human social-ecological system of planetary scope”, Janez Potočnik sums up.

Social unrest is growing even in the high-income countries and “it is high time to hear the echo of the streets and the voices of a frustrated young generation”, the former EU Commissioner claims.

Multi beneficial policymaking EN mini

Interlinkages between social and environmental inequalities and decoupling

As pointed out in the UN inclusive wealth report (2018), “focusing on gross domestic product (GDP) alone is clearly not the answer when it comes to measuring human well-being”.

Decoupling concept EN mini

The IRP 2019 report notes that “the decoupling of natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic activity and human well-being is an essential element in the transition to a sustainable future”. This goes hand in hand with a circular economy where humans regenerate the biosphere and valorise the technosphere. In Janez Potočnik’s view, “circular economy is the oldest system in the world” and “all nature is organised on [its] principles”.

The fight for a sustainable world is not hopeless. Mr Potočnik acknowledges that the “complexity and scale of these challenges require a space that allows actors with responsibility for those environmental governance mechanisms to be able to consider and experiment with both new forms of collaboration” and more systemic approaches.

He promotes multi-stakeholder cooperation, more agile governance—including substate actors, such as cities, states and provinces—, the use of new technologies, and enhanced accountability and transparency.

To ensure a socially fair and inclusive transition to sustainability, Janez Potočnik calls for an intergenerational agreement to place the emphasis on a change of mindset and concrete action towards a circular economy, for example the strengthening of corporate regulation.


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